January 09, 2010

Paradigm shift at museums

A native sensibility to Autry exhibition

The Griffith Park museum enlisted the aid of 13 Indian artisans for a display of traditional baskets drawn from the Southwest Museum's vast collection.

By Suzanne Muchnic
Inviting native people to interpret the museum's collections signaled a paradigm shift that had been developing for years, Karr says. And it brought heated criticism. Washington Post columnist Mark Fisher lamented the "trendy faux-selflessness of today's historian" to "let the Indians present themselves as they wish to be seen." In the New York Times, Edward Rothstein bemoaned the museum's "studious avoidance of scholarship." The result of listening to so many constituencies, he wrote, "is that a monotony sets in; every tribe is equal, and so is every idea."

But the controversy seems to have subsided as Native American art has gained a larger presence at museums of art and history. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., recently unveiled a suite of American Indian galleries intended to represent the work as an important part of the nation's cultural legacy--adjacent to traditional American art galleries.

At the Denver Art Museum, a general art museum with a strong Native American collection, veteran curator Nancy Blomberg says the biggest change she has witnessed in her career is "working with Native American artists and communities to represent them hand in hand, to have those voices included in your exhibits." She's working on a new installation of the collection that she describes as "even more artist-centered than it has been."
Comment:  Given Mark Fisher's defense of the "Redskins" team name, I can't take his opinion on Native issues too seriously.

I'd say Native participation in museum exhibits is a huge improvement. Sure, sometimes exhibits seem too upbeat, touchy-feely, and namby-pamby (these are technical terms, FYI). In other words, too sanitized of conflict and criticism. But Native participation also makes artifacts and artwork seem much more vibrant and meaningful. They're no longer just inanimate objects from the ground; they're part of a continuum of living cultures.

The ideal might be to have Natives with a skeptical or critical eye develop these exhibits. In other words, Native versions of me. <g>

For more on the subject, see The Feel-Good Museum:  Reviews of the National Museum of the American Indian.

Below:  "June Pardue, left, and Carol Emarthle-Douglas display items they made for an initial weekend marketplace." (Bret Hartman/For The Times)

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